“Our Army Nurses”

Civil War nurses outside Fredericksburg, 1864

Nurses and doctors at Fredericksburg after the Battle of the Wilderness, 1864

About a million years ago, I wrote a study guide to Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage for a reference book called The Literature of War. In the course of my research, I was introduced to the flood of material produced about the American Civil War some twenty or thirty years after it ended: regimental histories, general histories, poetry, pamphlets, biographies, lightly edited diaries and, most of all, memoirs by war veterans. Many war memoirs were small privately printed works distributed to friends and family. At the other end of the spectrum, The Personal Memoirs of US Grant (1885) was one of the best selling American books of the nineteenth century.* It was a fascinating view of warfare, and useful context for writing about Crane. When I was done, I tucked it away in the back of my brain with all the other miscellaneous bits of information I collect as a writer of popular history and moved on to my next assignment.

I didn’t think about the specialized narrative of the Civil War memoir again until I got the call about writing The Heroines of Mercy Street** It had never occurred to me that Civil War nurses also wrote memoirs–it didn’t come up in the course of my research on Crane. (Women are largely invisible in traditional military history and its spin-offs. Something I want to help change.) Boy did they ever! The first to appear, and probably the best known at the time, was Louisa May Alcott’s Hospital Sketches, a lightly fictionalized account of Alcott’s brief stint as a Civil War nurse that was published in 1863 while the war was still in progress. But she was by no means alone. After the war, women in the North and South wrote their memoirs and edited their letters for publication, with titles like Ministering Angel, An Army Nurse in Two Wars, The Lady Nurse of Ward E, Hospital Pencillings, etc. Others wrote out their story for family members.

One of my favorite Civil War nursing memoirs will probably never be reprinted: Our Army Nurses. Interesting Sketches, Addresses and Photographs of nearly One Hundred of the Noble Women Who Served in Hospitals and on Battlefields during Our Civil War, compiled by Mary A. Gardner Holland. The book is exactly what it sounds like: one hundred short accounts by written by Civil War nurses roughly thirty years after the fact. Holland took on the task of tracking down as many former nurses as possible and asking them to contribute. She received more letters and photographs in response than she could include. Some of them are beautifully written–most notably Holland’s own essay. (I suspect her desire to write her story inspired the project.) Some of them suggest that their authors seldom picked up a pen for any purpose other than labeling jars of piccalili and chow chow at the end of the summer’s canning. All of them display pride in their service. And well they should.

Nurse’s memoirs are easier to get hold of than they used to be. When the study of women’s history began to gain solid ground in the 1980s and 1990s, many of these works were reprinted, along with previously unprinted collections of letters. I am now the owner of a small collection of well-thumbed reprints; some with scholarly introductions and footnotes, others as naked of scholarly apparatus as the day they first left the printers. Charming, funny, heartbreaking–they’re worth reading if you are interested in different perspective on the Civil War.

*Thanks in part to a clever marketing campaign devised by its publisher, Mark Twain. Grant finished the book only a few days before he died. Twain sent 10,000 sales agents across the North, many of them Civil War veterans dressed in their old uniforms. They sold the two-volume memoir by subscription, using a script written by Twain himself, which was designed to appeal to veterans mourning Grant’s death. Twain described the work this way: “this is the simple soldier, who, all untaught of the silken phrase-makers, linked words together with an art surpassing the art of the schools and put into them a something which will still bring to American ears, as long as America shall last, the roll of his vanished drums and the tread of his marching hosts.” Some of Twain’s praise may be sales puffery, but Grant’s work remains highly regarded for its shrewd and intelligent depiction of the war.

**I did warn you there would be a certain amount of “my book, my book!” over the next few months.

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